Monday, October 29, 2018

The Council of Trent and Justification

The Council of Trent meeting in Santa Maria Maggiore Church
The Council of Trent was held by the Roman Catholic Church between 1545 and 1563 in response to the Protestant Reformation. Its sixth session was dedicated to the topic of justification. In the proclamation that resulted from this session, which you can read here, the Council of Trent sought to counter the Protestant ideas of the bondage of the will, forensic justification, sola fide, assurance of salvation, and the perseverance of the saints. The council still asserted the necessity of grace and faith for justification. They still asserted that we were unjust in Adam and only justified by being “born again in Christ.”[1] Yet, they denied that justification is only the remission of sins, but argued that it is “also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts…”[2] Thus, one can grow in one’s justification, voluntarily contributing to it.

The council taught that God does not merely reckon us to be just, but properly calls us just because we are just, each according to our measure.[3] It taught that our justification is not dependent upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, but rather upon our righteousness which we are enabled to exercise because of the grace of Christ given to us. It taught that we can only be just by the charity of God being inherent in our hearts.[4]

Thus, Trent’s concept of the way of salvation is dependent upon living righteously. Justification depends upon it. Mortal sins in the future can cause one to fall from justification. Only the sacrament of penance, administered by the institutional church, can restore one to justification. This is described as being “again justified.”[5] Even then, the satisfaction of temporal punishment is needed. With this emphasis, it is no surprise that there is little or no place for the believer to be assured of his salvation or perseverance. Despite the council’s emphasis on God’s grace, its theology points man to a focus on self and performance for salvation.

A classic statement of the Protestant view can be found in the Westminster Larger Catechism:
"Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone."[6] 
Clear biblical support for such a definition can be found in passages like Romans 3-4. "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Rom. 3:28). Because the Protestant view teaches that justification depends upon the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us, it can give confidence to the believer that his status is secure in Christ. Justification is distinct from sanctification (our renewal in righteousness), although both are given to every believer in Christ. Good works necessarily accompany faith but do not contribute to justification, being motivated by love and gratitude.

[2] Chapter 7.
[3] Chapter 7.
[4] Chapter 7.
[5] Chapter 14.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Scottish National Covenant (1580)

As we approach Reformation Day on October 31st, it is a fitting time to look back at the pivotal events of the 16th and 17th centuries that began with Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. What began as a proposal to debate the practice of selling indulgences quickly grew into an international movement of spiritual revival and the biblical reform of doctrine, church, and society. The European church was split by the refusal of the papacy to submit to biblical reforms and by discord among some of the reformers, and we live with the results today. Today I thought I would post the Scottish National Covenant of 1580. In an age in which the onslaught of secularism has made Protestants and Catholics realize that they do have a bit in common, it is still necessary to remember the corruptions and errors which made this division necessary. While the Roman Catholic Church has not remained unchanged over the past 500 years, nearly all the matters brought up in this document remain issues today. The National Covenant was written 20 years after Scotland had become Presbyterian, and it served to express the resolve of the Scottish people and king to maintain the reformed religion that they had embraced. Think of it like Scotland's "Declaration of Independence" from the Roman Catholic Church. As such, it contained an extended section in which they listed their objections to the Roman Catholic Church. It was signed by the king in 1580 and then by the people of all ranks in 1581. (In 1638, after the Stuart monarchs had tried to impose certain Romish traditions on the Scottish church, the Scots renewed this covenant and added about eight paragraphs. You can read the whole 1638 version here: The National Covenant.)


The National Covenant - 1580

We all and every one of us under-written, protest, That, after long and due examination of our own consciences in matters of true and false religion, we are now thoroughly resolved in the truth by the word and Spirit of God: and therefore we believe with our hearts, confess with our mouths, subscribe with our hands, and constantly affirm, before God and the whole world, that this only is the true Christian faith and religion, pleasing God, and bringing salvation to man, which now is, by the mercy of God, revealed to the world by the preaching of the blessed evangel; and is received, believed, and defended by many and sundry notable kirks and realms, but chiefly by the kirk of Scotland, the King's Majesty, and three estates of this realm, as God's eternal truth, and only ground of our salvation; as more particularly is expressed in the Confession of our Faith, established and publickly confirmed by sundry acts of Parliaments, and now of a long time hath been openly professed by the King's Majesty, and whole body of this realm both in burgh and land. To the which Confession and Form of Religion we willingly agree in our conscience in all points, as unto God's undoubted truth and verity, grounded only upon his written word. And therefore we abhor and detest all contrary religion and doctrine; but chiefly all kind of Papistry in general and particular heads, even as they are now damned and confuted by the word of God and Kirk of Scotland. But, in special, we detest and refuse the usurped authority of that Roman Antichrist upon the scriptures of God, upon the kirk, the civil magistrate, and consciences of men; all his tyrannous laws made upon indifferent things against our Christian liberty; his erroneous doctrine against the sufficiency of the written word, the perfection of the law, the office of Christ, and his blessed evangel; his corrupted doctrine concerning original sin, our natural inability and rebellion to God's law, our justification by faith only, our imperfect sanctification and obedience to the law; the nature, number, and use of the holy sacraments; his five bastard sacraments, with all his rites, ceremonies, and false doctrine, added to the ministration of the true sacraments without the word of God; his cruel judgment against infants departing without the sacrament; his absolute necessity of baptism; his blasphemous opinion of transubstantiation, or real presence of Christ's body in the elements, and receiving of the same by the wicked, or bodies of men; his dispensations with solemn oaths, perjuries, and degrees of marriage forbidden in the word; his cruelty against the innocent divorced; his devilish mass; his blasphemous priesthood; his profane sacrifice for sins of the dead and the quick; his canonization of men; calling upon angels or saints departed, worshipping of imagery, relicks, and crosses; dedicating of kirks, altars, days; vows to creatures; his purgatory, prayers for the dead; praying or speaking in a strange language, with his processions, and blasphemous litany, and multitude of advocates or mediators; his manifold orders, auricular confession; his desperate and uncertain repentance; his general and doubtsome faith; his satisfaction of men for their sins; his justification by works, opus operatum, works of supererogation, merits, pardons, peregrinations, and stations; his holy water, baptizing of bells, conjuring of spirits, crossing, sayning, anointing, conjuring, hallowing of God's good creatures, with the superstitious opinion joined therewith; his worldly monarchy, and wicked hierarchy; his three solemn vows, with all his shavelings of sundry sorts; his erroneous and bloody decrees made at Trent, with all the subscribers or approvers of that cruel and bloody band, conjured against the kirk of God. And finally, we detest all his vain allegories, rites, signs, and traditions brought in the kirk, without or against the word of God, and doctrine of this true reformed kirk; to the which we join ourselves willingly, in doctrine, faith, religion, discipline, and use of the holy sacraments, as lively members of the same in Christ our head: promising and swearing, by the great name of the LORD our GOD, that we shall continue in the obedience of the doctrine and discipline of this kirk, and shall defend the same, according to our vocation and power, all the days of our lives; under the pains contained in the law, and danger both of body and soul in the day of God's fearful judgment.

And seeing that many are stirred up by Satan, and that Roman Antichrist, to promise, swear, subscribe, and for a time use the holy sacraments in the kirk deceitfully, against their own conscience; minding hereby, first, under the external cloak of religion, to corrupt and subvert secretly God's true religion within the kirk; and afterward, when time may serve, to become open enemies and persecutors of the same, under vain hope of the Pope's dispensation, devised against the word of God, to his greater confusion, and their double condemnation in the day of the Lord Jesus: we therefore, willing to take away all suspicion of hypocrisy, and of such double dealing with God, and his kirk, protest, and call the Searcher of all hearts for witness, that our minds and hearts do fully agree with this our Confession, promise, oath, and subscription: so that we are not moved with any worldly respect, but are persuaded only in our conscience, through the knowledge and love of God's true religion imprinted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as we shall answer to him in the day when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed.

And because we perceive, that the quietness and stability of our religion and kirk doth depend upon the safety and good behaviour of the King's Majesty, as upon a comfortable instrument of God's mercy granted to this country, for the maintaining of his kirk, and ministration of justice amongst us; we protest and promise with our hearts, under the same oath, hand-writ, and pains, that we shall defend his person and authority with our goods, bodies, and lives, in the defence of Christ, his evangel, liberties of our country, ministration of justice, and punishment of iniquity, against all enemies within this realm or without, as we desire our God to be a strong and merciful defender to us in the day of our death, and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; to whom, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory eternally. Amen.

Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard (1638), by William Allen (1782–1850)

Monday, October 22, 2018

Matthew 24 and the Fall of Jerusalem with Dr. Joe Morecraft

Take a listen to Dr. Morecraft as he speaks about Matthew 24, prophecy, the fall of Jerusalem, the Book of Revelation, and our view of the future. This video was taken at the Arch of Titus, an ancient monument in Rome which commemorated the sack of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Thursday, October 18, 2018


Proverbs 15:31-33
[31] The ear that listens to life-giving reproof
will dwell among the wise.
[32] Whoever ignores instruction despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.
[33] The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom,
and humility comes before honor. 

The Book of Proverbs says much about how the fear of the Lord leads to wisdom. One way the the fear of the Lord does so is that it cultivates a habit of teachableness. This theme is repeated multiple times throughout the book of Proverbs (10:17, 12:1, 13:18, 15:5, 27:5-6, 28:23). It is at the root of our Christian identity as disciples and takes self-conscious effort to pursue. Proverbs 15:33 explicitly connects this trait with the fear of the Lord: “The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom.”

The precise relation between the “fear of the Lord” and “instruction of wisdom” can seem a little ambiguous. Some translations take this to say that the fear of the Lord “is what wisdom teaches” (HCSB), while others, that the fear of the Lord “provides wise instruction” (NET). While both are true, if we compare it with the rest of the verse we find that just as humility comes before honor, so the fear of the Lord comes before the instruction of wisdom. It enables us to receive instruction. Combining this with the preceding two verses, we can paraphrase this passage by saying: “The one who fears the LORD will humbly accept instruction and reproof and thus gain life and honor.” The fear of the Lord is life-giving because it makes one teachable and open to correction and instruction. The fear of the Lord (1) gives us a desire for instruction, (2) directs our response to instruction, and (3) frees us to accept instruction.

1. It gives us a desire for instruction. If we fear the Lord, we submit ourselves to Him. This is not the fear that causes us to run from God, but rather the fear that causes us to draw near to serve and worship Him. We realize how awe-inspiring and powerful our God is, and we therefore bind ourselves to His service. This was the reaction of the disciples when they saw their risen Lord in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20). They worshipped. Then Jesus gave them their marching orders, a life-long mission of discipleship. If we fear the Lord, we will take His word as law. His word of justification and his word of command is final. The fear of the Lord subdues us to teachableness.

It is unfortunate that the word “discipleship” is not used in the culture at large. It makes its meaning more difficult to grasp. It is sometimes used today as just another word for “being a Christian.” Its true meaning is more precise. It refers to a learner, a student, a follower, an intern. As disciples, we are all interns of Christ. We are learning on-the-job, ever looking for correction and counsel, seeking to improve. Internships are interactive. Reading books are helpful, but we need interaction as well. As an Old French proverb has it: "All things can be learned in solitude except character." The Bible is active and living – it is not an ordinary book – but Jesus does not disciple us by the book alone. We, as the body of Christ, disciple each other in the ways of Christ. The Bible is preached and taught by people. We bring Jesus’ word of justification and command to one another. This is the meaning of the Great Commission. In Colossians 3:16, the word of Christ dwells richly among us when we teach and admonish one another. We find Christ among His people. Some, such as parents and pastors, have a special charge to teach and disciple those under them. 1 Thessalonians 5:12 tells Christians to respect those who are “over you in the Lord and admonish you,” but then in verse 14 he also seems to tell Christians generally to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” Ephesians 4 also speaks of the importance of pastors and teaches to equip the saints, but then it says that the saints should work together, speaking the truth in love to one another.

Being discipled by Christ through His body is intrusive. Being corrected and critiqued–being told where I have failed or where and what I can do better–these things can hurt at the moment. They are not easy. But if we are going to get anywhere in life–if we are going to be serious about loving our God and loving one another–these things need to happen. Taking personal offense at every correction will hinder our discipleship. Pride is so worthless, counterproductive, and foolish. You and I need to grow. May we love our God and one another more than our pride.

2. The fear of the LORD directs our response to instruction. A potential objection to teachableness is that it leads to being led astray by whoever catches your ear. You want to find something substantial and lasting, and it seems that if you open yourselves up to correction or counsel you will loose your stability. If we become open to advice, how do we know we won’t end up like a tumbleweed, blown every way? Yet, this is not the openness taught here in Proverbs. Proverbs refers to a willingness to receive instruction and reproof that is rooted in the fear of the Lord. 

Can you picture someone who is eager to be discipled by his God and to receive this instruction from a brother, but hears instead some strange opinion or novel invention? He raises an eyebrow and says, “Thank you for your advice, but where does my Lord say that?” If I fear the Lord, I will evaluate instruction by the word of the Lord and I was especially desire instruction that is based on His word. I am not bound by everything my friend tells me. The fear of the Lord helps me interpret the advice I receive – it is the lens through which we see the advice. Without the fear of the Lord, advice is worthless. A fool can make terrible use of wonderful advice and be led astray by bad advice. If you truly fear the Lord, you will not be consumed by debatable opinions or deceived by falsehood. The fear of the Lord anchors us so that we may receive correction without the fear of being led astray.

When we receive instruction in the fear of the Lord, this instruction is "life-giving" and leads to "intelligence," "wisdom," and "honor" (Prov. 15:31-33). It is the one who refuses to hear instruction and reproof who is more likely to go his own way, "tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Eph. 4:14). 

3. The fear of the LORD frees us to accept instruction. Another reason we are hesitant to accept instruction is because we sometimes fear man more than we fear the Lord. We fear man when we look to man for justification, when our sense of worth and identity is based on the words of man. We fear man when we become people-pleasers and serve the opinions of man. The fear of man leads to flattery, hypocrisy, and anxiety. 

The fear of God frees us from the fear of man. God’s word of justification is final. If we no longer seek justification from people, we are free to be confronted by them. Since we no longer depend upon each other for our justification, a word of challenge from them no longer threatens our identity. Rather than shrinking back in terror, we can receive it with sober teachableness. This is similar to our relation to the law. Because the law does not condemn us, we are free to be confronted and discipled by it. Because we are sons, and not slaves, we can willingly accept the Lord’s discipline.

Proverbs 29:25 says that “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.” The fear of man brings worry, deception, distrust, shallow relationships, and retreat. But the fear of the Lord brings life, honor, intrusive but deep relationships, and growth. We are safe in the word of our Lord. We are so safe, that we can accept the instruction of our brother. We are secure.

Reproof gives life, and one despises it at the peril of their life. This is the way to honor, this is the way to prosperity. The peaceful and fulfilled life comes through the intense and intrusive path of discipleship. Teachableness may not sound fun, but it is a joy when one sees the big picture. We get discontent with shallow relationships, community that is not authentic, church that brings no change to our lives. If you want deep, loving relationships and a church that grows and matures, you need to make yourself available and open. We cannot put all the responsibility on others to confront us. We need to encourage this atmosphere by our own words and deeds. If someone has insight, if someone has wisdom for us, let them speak. To reach life and honor we need to commit ourselves to stay when corrected, to not flee when things become uncomfortable. It is then that we will dwell among the wise, as fellow interns of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Thy Kingdom Come

"Thy kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10a).

Commenting on this part of the Lord's Prayer in his Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, John Calvin says the following:
"We must first attend to the definition of the kingdom of God. He is said to reign among men, when they voluntarily devote and submit themselves to be governed by him, placing their flesh under the yoke, and renouncing their desires....There is still another way in which God reigns; and that is, when he overthrows his enemies, and compels them, with Satan their head, to yield a reluctant subjection to his authority, 'till they all be made his footstools' (Hebrews 10:13).  
The substance of this prayer is, that God would enlighten the world by the light of his Word, — would form the hearts of men, by the influences of his Spirit, to obey his justice, and would restore to order, by the gracious exercise of his power, all the disorder that exists in the world. Now, he commences his reign by subduing the desires of our flesh. Again, as the kingdom of God is continually growing and advancing to the end of the world, we must pray every day that it may come: for to whatever extent iniquity abounds in the world, to such an extent the kingdom of God, which brings along with it perfect righteousness, is not yet come."
When we pray "Thy kingdom come," we pray for this kingdom to grow and advance now and for its ultimate consummation. While Calvin roots the kingdom in God's work of redemption among his church, he has a broad view of the kingdom's claims and expectations. The kingdom is present, the kingdom is growing and advancing in breadth and depth, and the kingdom calls for the absolute submission of ourselves and the world. To the extent that there is disorder, injustice, and iniquity in this world, to that extent the kingdom is not yet come, and to that extent do we desire the kingdom to come. May Christ so extend the gracious power of his word and the powerful arm of his judgment to overthrow the domain of darkness and restore to peace and submission all the rebellion and disorder that exists in the world.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Survey of Revelation 20:1-6

Revelation 20:1–6
"[1] Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. [2] And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, [3] and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. 
[4] Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. [5] The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. [6] Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years."
Revelation 20:1-6 has been a much debated passage in discussions about what the Bible teaches about the future. Its mention of a "thousand years" has given rise to the common labels for eschatological views (i.e. views of the future): premillennialism (i.e. Christ returns before the thousand years), amillennialism (i.e. there is no literal or earthly thousand year reign), and postmillennialism (i.e. Christ returns after the thousand years, whether literal or figurative). Here I give a brief survey of this passage, first giving the premillennial explanation (Mounce, Bauckham, Keener), and then responding with the amillennial (Beale) and postmillennial (Mathison, Chilton) explanation. 

How bound is Satan? Is this a total or partial restriction of activity?

Some would interpret the binding of Satan in this passage to be a “complete cessation of his influence on earth.” They would appeal to the way words like “bound,” “threw,” “shut,” and “sealed” are used in this passage (Mounce, 360-362).

Others, though, point out that the binding of Satan is defined and qualified by the purpose clause, "so that he might not deceive," in verse 3 (Mathison, 155; Beale, 428-429; Chilton, 499-504). Satan is bound in such a way as to not deceive the nations anymore. He is unable to prevent the spread of the gospel. Satan is defeated, although not inactive. Scripture is quite capable of speaking this way about Satan current condition resulting from Christ’s work during his first coming (binding of the strong man: Matt. 12:19, Mark 3:27; fall of Satan and the authority given to disciples to trample him: Luke 10:18-19, John 12:31, Rom. 16:20; disarming demonic forces: Col. 2:15; rendering Satan powerless: Heb. 2:14). This passage also seems to describe the same events of Revelation 12:7-12, which would place the timing immediately following Christ’s ascension (Rev. 12:6).

When are the thousand years? Are they literal or figurative?

A number of people will take this passage to refer to a literal 1,000 year period (many premillennialists and some postmillennialists). Others, on the other hand, take it as a symbol that teaches us a truth, without reference to how it works out historically. “John expected the martyrs to be vindicated, but the millennium depicts the meaning, rather than predicting the manner of their vindication” (Bauckham, 108; see also Mounce, 369).

I would agree with Beale in understanding this millennium as figurative and historical, referring to the time between Christ’s first and second comings. Beale describes several reasons to take the millennium figuratively, such as the figurative use of numbers in the context and in Revelation in general, the use of “thousand years” figuratively elsewhere in Christian and Jewish literature, and the fact that this is the only time that a millennium is mentioned in Scripture (Beale, 435).

Are the thousand years before or after Christ’s coming? 

Some would argue that the millennium follows Christ’s coming and precedes the final judgment (Keener, 463). This view depends on a reading of Revelation that takes the visions John sees as describing events that all happen one after another. They will point out that chapter 19 describes Christ’s second coming, so Revelation 20:1-6 must describe a period after this.

On the other hand, I believe that the visions of Revelation sometimes describe the same events. Even in our passage, verses 1-3 describe the whole millennium and then verses 4-6 (introduced by another “and I saw”) describe the same millennium, this time focusing on the faithful, rather than on the dragon. Likewise, it is argued that Revelation 20:1-6 does not follow after the events of 19:11-21, but that it recaps the events from Christ’s first coming to His second. Beale argues that 19:11-21 is parallel to 20:7-10, and that the vision of 20:1-6 is therefore prior to 19:11-21 (Beale, 420-426). Chilton argues that 19:11-21 presents the spread of the kingdom in general, especially against Rome, and that it parallels the millennium (Chilton, 506-507; Mathison, 154-155; in favor of this, it can also be said that Christ describes his activity in the 1st century in 2:16 in the same terms as are used in 19:11-21). Either way, the millennium does not follow Christ’s coming. (See also the discussion of Satan’s binding, above.)

Who is ruling with Christ?

Some would argue that only the martyrs participate in this millennial reign, reading verse 4 to refer to one group of people (Mounce, 365-368; Bauckham, 106-108). Others would argue that all deceased Christians participate in this reign (Beale, 437). More convincing is the idea that the whole church, on earth and in heaven, shares in this reign, although the passage emphasizes the reign of the martyrs because they in particular appear defeated (Mathison, 156; Chilton, 508-515; Osborne, 703-704). Verse 4 seems to speak of two groups: (1) the martyrs in particular and (2) whoever had not worshiped the beast. This would also fit with what other passages say about the authority and heavenly position given to all believers (Luke 10:19, Dan. 7:22-27, Eph. 2:6, Rev. 12:11, 15:2).

What is the “first resurrection”? In what way do the martyrs and faithful come to life in verse 4?

This first resurrection is taken by some to be the bodily resurrection of the martyrs (or all Christians), while unbelievers await resurrection unto the second death at the end of the millennium.

Beale argues that this first resurrection is a spiritual exaltation in the intermediate state (Beale, 438-451). He describes it as the “ascent of the soul at the time of death into the Lord’s presence” (Beale, 443). The reference to the “souls” of the martyrs coming to life (rather than the body) would be part of the argument for this position.

Others would agree that there is only one general bodily resurrection, but explain the first resurrection as our regeneration and coming to new life in Christ (Mathison, 156). John, the author of Revelation, made a similar point in his gospel when he recorded that Jesus spoke of some of the dead coming to life now and all the dead coming to life in a bodily resurrection later (John 5:25, 28-29). The first resurrection is therefore not merely a sign that one is blessed and holy, free from the second death, and priests and kings, but it is what actually makes them so. Being born again in this age is the key to your spiritual position now and your destiny following the general resurrection on the last day.


Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1993.
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

- Chilton, David. The Days of Vengeance. Horn Lake, MS: Dominion Press, 2006.
- Keener, Craig S. Revelation. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000. 
- Mathison, Keith A. Postmillennialism. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub, 1999.

- Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 1977.

- Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Church and Culture: What is the Church Supposed to Do?

In political and cultural discussions, I have often heard Christians say that the root problem (and solution) is the church. I agree. The church is the salt and light of the earth (Matthew 5:13-16). Society decays when its salt is removed or its light dimmed. Yet, people’s view of what the church is doing wrong (or should do right) varies. Sometimes it isn’t clear. Sometimes it seems that “the church” is simply an easy general target. This reformation of the church is important, so I thought I’d examine a few areas where the church should focus. 

- Prayer and Repentance. A verse that is often quoted with regard to social distress is 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God comes to Solomon after the dedication of the temple and says, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Obviously this had a specific context, but the principle is found throughout the Bible (e.g. Gen. 18:22-33, Jonah 3:6-10). Sometimes it is God’s will that the righteous suffer, but we cannot expect prosperity unless we repent of sin and turn in true devotion to the Lord. God is still sovereign over history, and He still holds His people to covenantal faithfulness. 

When we recognize that things are going badly, our first reaction should be to repent of our sins and turn in faith and obedience to Christ, knowing that it is God who sends curses and blessings. Then, as those who take refuge in Christ’s righteousness, we can turn to remove the speck out of our brother’s eye. If we believe that history is random and that God doesn’t judge sin in history, we will be prone to react in a self-righteous or apathetic manner. What we need is a stout doctrine of God’s sovereignty and a biblical pattern for earnest prayer. The Psalms would be a great place to start. In the end, we are lost unless we have heart-felt repentance and religious devotion to the triune God.

- Prophetic Proclamation. Something else that is mentioned in this context is the church’s duty to speak forth God’s word in a way that confronts the sin of man. An often-quoted statement that typifies this point is “Every abortion clinic should have a sign in front of it saying, ‘Open by the permission of the local church’” (attributed to Francis Schaeffer). The relative silence of the church on ethical issues is a problem. If “repentance and forgiveness of sins” is to be preached to all nations (Luke 24:47), then we will need to preach the law of God. We will have sermons like Paul’s sermon on “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25) and John the Baptist’s practical message on the fruits of repentance as applied to tax collectors, soldiers, kings, and everyone (Luke 3:7-22). The law of God leads to repentance, restrains evil in society, and disciples Christ’s followers. From the preaching of Enoch and Noah to the visions of Revelation, the law has been preached to the world for its good. 

Some churches have tried to relevantly proclaim God’s ethical demands to our society. The church has not been totally silent. Yet, we can heed a few things that have hindered them. First, we must be careful to avoid being subsumed by non-Christian ideologies or parties. We can work with non-Christian groups and individuals on issues, but we must remain fundamentally loyal to the Bible rather than other ideologies or institutions. Second, we must also proclaim God’s redemptive promises in Christ alongside His law. Love and law, inseparable. Third, we must realize that those who reject biblical morals can appeal to the mainline churches who proclaim “peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jer. 8:11), soothing their consciences. Civil society feels free to disregard biblical preaching because Christianity lacks clear boundaries and unity. We will need to take seriously the unity of the church in the truth before the church will be taken seriously. 

- Charity. Health and welfare become corrupted when they are centralized in the hands of impersonal civil government bureaucracy. Not only does welfare suffer, but civil government gains more power and moves closer to totalitarian control. To limit civil government, we need to disperse the power of government by fulfilling our duty as the church to care for those in need. Christians should start by taking responsibility for the care of their households and relatives (1 Tim. 5:8). The church, privately and as an institution, should work to share its goods with other Christians who are in need: “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). The church should also seek to “do good to everyone” (Gal. 6:10). Just as God gives rain and sun to the unjust, so we ought to have compassion on all men, not just our brothers (Matt. 5:42-48).

This charity requires Christians who faithfully fund the diaconate with their tithes (Num. 18:21ff, Acts 6:1-7) and who are personally generous with their resources (Deut. 14:28-29, Luke 14:12-14). This also means speaking of the poor in compassionate, even if honest and unromantic, terms. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Prov. 14:31). Many Christians do this work, often behind the scenes, but many of us (myself included) could benefit from greater emphasis on this point. 

- Community. R.J. Rushdoony insightfully describes the situation:
“The stress on individualism has meant man’s unwillingness to live in community with others unless he finds it to his advantage. The modern answer thus to personal problems is not to resolve them but to move on to another group...If a problem with another person develops, that person is either cut out of the group, or one or more people leave to find a new association. Clubs, churches, and various associations thus have a continual floating population because of the lack of community…As a result, we all become “difficult” people, fixed in our ways and unwilling to live with the faults or failings of other people, which means also our unwillingness to change our own….Nisbet has pointed out how the decline of community means also the rise of totalitarianism…Totalitarianism is seen by many as freedom, because the irritating ties of man to man are replaced by the impersonal functionings of a statist bureaucracy.  
Practically, what this means is that if we do not enjoy too close a contact with people, and if we break with them readily if they do not suit us, then, whatever our politics, we are helping create a totalitarian regime. Whenever and wherever men’s lives are closely enmeshed with the lives of others, and where there is a strong mutual forbearance among people, the basic government is exerted by society…Our sensitivity to the standards of our group or community make us more restrained in our behavior. Where there is a strong community influence, there is less anarchistic liberty but more essential freedom” (The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 2, p. 65-66). 
If this is true of community in general, so how much more in the church, which is bound together by God’s word and covenant? If the church was a self-disciplined and functioning community it would work as a cultural core, an anchor or backbone for the rest of society and its values (or a clear witness against its rebellion). At the very least, the church would not be a burden or liability for society. It would be more likely that the liberty of the church and Christians would be respected. Irresponsibility and anarchic individualism leads to the necessity of totalitarian coercion. Freedom and blessing is found in submission, forgiveness, service, and discipline. This kind of community is found in Christ. May the church proclaim it by its words and deeds.